The injured are all expected back at or near full strength this season. Cowens hit .300 following his return to the lineup, while McRae and Brett underwent surgery this winter. Both missed most of spring training, but Herzog anticipates they will be ready on Opening Day.
The Royals' pitching also helped them overcome their injuries. "That's been the strength of my team the last two years," Herzog says. K.C. had the third-lowest ERA in the league and could be even tougher to score on in '79. Dennis Leonard, pitching as if he were intent on returning to Triple A, got off to a 3-8 start, but he was 18-9 thereafter. Paul Splittorff (19-13) was steady, as usual, and 31-year-old Larry Gura won 16 of 20 decisions and seems to be improving with age. Rich Gale began his rookie season with a 13-3 rush before dipping off to 14-8. He figures to be as strong as he was at the start of last season, now that surgery has corrected a minor muscle imbalance in his right arm. Equally encouraging this spring has been the apparent return to form of Steve Busby, a 22-game winner for the Royals in 1974, who underwent surgery for a torn rotator cuff in 1976 and has not pitched well since. "The arm feels super," Busby says. "Best it's felt in four years."
Only the bullpen seems a weak spot for Kansas City. Doug Bird, effective in 1977, collapsed last season, finishing with a 5.29 ERA and one save. He must recover if Al Hrabosky, who had 20 saves in '78, is to get many days off.
Since the advent of free-agentry, Minnesota and Oakland have lost talent whose combined worth probably would be enough to buy either—or, perhaps, both—of the franchises. But while the A's will be hapless, at best, the Twins have managed to stay moderately respectable. Though their lineup is depleted of the topflight hitters that were once a Minnesota trademark, the Twins can still bring rivals to grief because of a pitching staff that may turn out to be envied in Anaheim. In 15-game winner Dave Goltz they have one of baseball's best pitchers; Geoff Zahn, a victor 14 times, is almost as tough. "This is as good a pitching staff as I have had in five years," says Manager Gene Mauch. Minnesota traded for former Met Jerry Koosman, 35, hoping there is still life in a left arm that won only three times in '78, and last season the Twins came up with a good rookie in righthander Roger Erickson (14-13). The revived Mike Marshall, who came out of semiretirement last May 15 to rack up 21 saves, will back the starting talent with his inexhaustible bullpen work.
But because of their weak hitting the Twins will not win all that often. The best of the holdovers is Shortstop Roy Smalley, who had only 160 hits, 80 runs, 31 doubles, 19 homers and 77 RBIs. Ron Jackson, a .297 hitter obtained from California, should help a bit, but not enough.
The White Sox finished fifth in the division, 20� games behind the Royals, and there is no reason to believe they will improve. Starting pitchers Steve Stone and Wilbur Wood became free agents, making Ken Kravec and Francisco Barrios the aces. They won only 20 games between them last year. The Sox finished 10th in the league defensively and were 10th in stolen bases, too. Among the hitters, only Chet Lemon, the good young centerfielder, is coming off a notable performance. He hit .300. No wonder Player- Manager Don Kessinger has already conceded the division's top three places to Kansas City, Texas and California.
Oakland continues to flounder, but the A's had their moments last year. They started out hot, actually holding the lead as late as July 5, before spending the last two months in a 14-42 slump. Oakland's pitching isn't bad—John Johnson, Matt Keough and Rick Langford are all relatively young, and each had an earned run average of less than 3.43—but the weaknesses at bat seem insurmountable. The A's finished last in the league in hitting, total bases, hits, RBIs and runs. What offense there was came almost entirely from Mitchell Page, who hit .285 with 17 homers and 70 runs batted in, Dave Revering (.271, 16, 46) and Mario Guerrero (.275). True, attendance climbed, but only by 31,400, to 526,999, and the franchise is still awash. And for sale. Considering the players on hand, the $11 million price is no bargain.
Seattle, which finished 35 games back, had the worst record in the league, and the Mariners' attendance dipped almost 500,000 from the giddy expansion-year heights of 1977. But Manager Darrell Johnson says he detects some stirring, particularly by young pitchers Floyd Bannister, Odell Jones and Byron McLaughlin. "Our biggest potential improvement is in our pitching staff," Johnson says. "With these three guys, at least we have some people who can pop the dang ball. There's no way we can be as bad as we were last year." And no way they can be much better, either, even if Outfielder Leon Roberts' surprising performance of '78—he hit .301 with 22 home runs and 92 RBIs—doesn't turn out to have been a fluke.